When it comes to comedy writing, few men have compiled more impressive resumes than David Misch, who has lent his unique voice to legendary sitcoms including Mork & Mindy, Police Squad! and Duckman, served as a guest writer on Saturday Night Live and worked as a special consultant on The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Raised in Highland Park, Illinois, Misch attended Pomona College and, after graduation, moved to Boston, where he wrote political satire, hosted a live music radio show and performed as a comic folksinger and stand-up comedian at colleges, coffeehouses and nightclubs. His song “Somerville” was released nationally by Fretless Records, and in 1976, Misch was named “Best Comedian in Boston” by Boston Magazine. Misch then moved to California, where he wrote for Mork & Mindy and co-wrote Leave It To Dave, the pilot for David Letterman’s first talk show. In 1982, Misch served as the Executive Story Editor on the iconic Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker series Police Squad!, starring Leslie Nielsen as intrepid detective Frank Drebin, and in the mid-’90s, Misch worked as a writer and producer on the the USA Network’s quirky animated series Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man, which featured the voice of Jason Alexander as the title character.
Misch’s play “Pretty Naked People” premieres in Los Angeles at the Secret Rose Theatre in Burbank Los Angeles in January, starring Paul Provenza.
In 2012, Applause Books published Misch’s Funny: The Book: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Comedy, a comprehensive look at the evolution, theories, principles, and practice of comedy, as well as the psychological, philosophical, and even theological underpinnings of humor itself.
What was your childhood like, and how did it shape who you are today?
I was born in a humble log cabin in 1946, then again in a split-level thatched roof cottage in 1950. Growing a remarkable twelve inches a day (though, unfortunately, entirely in my shins), I was recruited by both the Chicago Bulls and AAA Ceiling Repair before my fourth birthday, but opted instead for a career as a professional snitch.
After ratting out literally dozen of ne’er-do-wells to the FIB, I realized I should have been dealing with the FBI, not Fellas In Basements, a special-interest group devoted to the study of La-Z-Boy armchairs. I then retired to an underwater colony of scuba gear scavengers who, unable to find scuba gear, drowned. I will be missed.
Growing up, who were your biggest comedic and creative influences?
When, as a kid, I discovered James Thurber, I then quickly went through the renowned wits of my day (and earlier days) – S.J. Perelman, Robert Benchley, P.G. Wodehouse – while on TV I saw great comics like Jackie Gleason and Dick Van Dyke, and film comedies from the ’20s through the ’50s.
But my seminal experience came from the Marx Brothers on the big screen. In my 20s, I lived in Cambridge, Mass. It was the ’70s and someone had the idea of playing old movies in theaters (what we now call “art houses”). The Marxes were pretty much forgotten, but one night a theater had a double-bill of Duck Soup and A Night At The Opera and the sold-out audience laughed so loudly you could barely hear the dialogue. I was hooked, with the lifelong goal to make audiences emit that loud barking noise at regular intervals.
How did the opportunity to work on Mork & Mindy come about?
I moved from Boston to New York City, where I became a stand-up and was spotted by Woody Allen’s manager, who signed me as a writer (which says volumes about my skill as a stand-up). Soon I was on a plane to L.A. to write for what I thought would be a lame sitcom about a Martian. But my manager also handled Robin Williams who, he said, “is actually pretty good.”
Despite airing only six episodes, Police Squad! is one of the most revered TV series of all time. What was it like to work on that show, and did you realize at the time that you were creating something special?
In every interview with someone who worked on something great, they say “I had no idea.” I can now confirm that’s true. With the caveat that we all knew it was damn funny.
Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker (“ZAZ”) had just made the hit movie Airplane!, which I loved. When their next movie idea – a parody of cop shows – didn’t sell, they decided to do it as a TV series.
Although I’d had a great time on Mork, most of the writers were older; ZAZ and the rest of the Police Squad! staff were my age and more my sensibility, so it was tremendous fun.
One thing I learned was sticking up for what you believe. The former dramatic leading man Leslie Nielsen was a supporting player in Airplane!, one of the first times he’d done comedy. The guys wanted him for Police Squad! but the network called to say no, he was too old.
The guys said “Okay, we understand,” hung up the phone, left the office, got in their cars, and drove off the studio lot. “We’re millionaires,” they said. “We don’t care.” A few hours later, Leslie Nielsen was our lead.
Another favorite memory from that show was landing at LAX in jacket and business shoes, getting picked up by a limo and driven to the beach in Santa Monica, where I was told I’d be judging a bikini contest with ZAZ. I remember walking across the hot sand, shedding my ludicrous outfit, thinking, “This is gonna be fun.” It was.
What was your role on The Muppets Take Manhattan?
The movie had been written and was going into production in a few weeks when they decided they needed someone to write for the constantly-changing list of celebrities who were going to do cameos in the movie. As I started doing that, director Frank Oz started making other changes too and before I knew it, I was rewriting the movie.
I was on set during shooting; one day in Central Park, I watched as Frank as Miss Piggy and Jim Henson as Kermit acted and improvised (with lots of obscenities) while a crowd gathered and stared not at the two six-foot-plus men, but at the two pieces of felt at the end of their arms.
Over the course of your career, you’ve worked with some legendary comedic actors and actresses. Is there anyone you worked with who, in your opinion, didn’t get the respect they deserved?
Okay, this is gonna seem weird. I have indeed worked with some great performers: Robin, Jim and Frank, Ben Stiller, Jason Alexander, Leonard Nimoy, Carl Reiner, Martin Short… But the one who surprised me the most was, of all people, Kim Cattrall of Sex and the City. She did a voiceover for my adult animated show Duckman and, unlike many of the celebs we had, came in having worked out an entire character and, as we say, “arc” for the role, which she then performed wonderfully.
Plus she was sexy as hell.
What inspired you to write Funny: The Book? What sort of research went into the writing of the book?
I’ve always liked figuring out how things work. (Other than mechanical things. ’Cause, y’know, I’m Jewish.)
So I taught a class about how comedy works – in movies, TV, prose, everything – at the University of Southern California. A literary agent friend said I should turn the class into a book and in the twinkling of an eye (assuming it takes your eye about three years to twinkle) it was done, cramming 45 hours of material into 170 pages. I must confess I had no idea how deep the rabbit-hole would be; I ended up plowing through scientific literature, Ph.D. dissertations, philosophy, psychology, history books and of course hundreds of hours of movies and TV.
As an example of a typical dark alley I went down hoping for treasure, I found a book called Comedy and Mathematics, written by a math professor, which I knew could be unbearably boring and unfunny but hoped would provide some cool insight. So I read (most of) it; it was unbearably boring and unfunny and provided no cool insights.
What’s the funniest movie or TV show you’ve seen recently?
I am, sadly, the very definition of jaded when it comes to comedy; it takes a lot to make me laugh. Right now I’m hooked on Samantha Bee’s satirical TV show, Full Frontal. Her no-nonsense delivery and the whip-smart writing (which she supervises) sets it apart from almost everything else, though the fact is that we’re now living in a Golden Age of Comedy.
In A Beginner’s Guide to Corruption, you explore lying, cheating, stealing and other unsavory behavior of individuals throughout history. What drew you towards this topic?
For some reason, I am grotesquely honest. I’m not proud of it. I’m not even happy with it; the smallest white lies (which, admittedly, I indulge in from time to time) fill me with guilt. So I’m fascinated by people who are corrupt, and the lies they tell others (and themselves): Bernie Madoff, perpetrator of the biggest financial scam in U.S. history, whose victims included family, friends and charitable organizations; Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, who was having an affair at the exact same time he led Congress to impeach Bill Clinton for having an affair; even Stephen Hawking – yes, Stephen Hawking – who, while paralyzed in a wheelchair, left his wife and children to marry his nurse, whose husband designed his talking computer.
What does a typical day for you look like?
I get up about 7:30 and take a shower. That means scrubbing the dirt off my body – all of it! Then I head for the Breakfast Cottage and a meal of hot fruit and popcorn. I look over the news: people killing each other, bombing, torturing… it’s so different from the parties we gave in the ’70s. After breakfast, I play with my prize-winning collection of crabs then it’s back to bed ’til morning.
What are you working on next?
An exposé of arts blogs, especially sites that purport to feature Q&As with writers, musicians and artists, when everyone knows the interviews are written by their PR agents. (David: Please remit $150.)